After I had said goodbye to a great many people, and walked down the shaking steps with canvas banisters that the sailors hang on the side of a ship, and stepped into a little tug as three Italians who wore blue uniforms screamed, “Attento! Attento!” I felt as if I were getting close to the end of my journey, and that the surprise pile must be getting low, for I couldn’t imagine that things on land could keep on being so different. But they were, and after I landed, I felt as if the ship life, which had been a real change for me, had been only a mild preface.
The harbor was rough, and getting in
was quite hard, which I liked, and a great many of the women in the tug
screamed and held on to the nearest man, and the Italian sailors called
shrilly, and it was all very nice.
“Afraid?” Mr. Wake asked of me. It was the first time he had spoken since he had thanked heaven that I had only one bag.
“No,” I answered, “I like it. I kind of wish it would go over – of course I wouldn’t want anyone hurt, but I would like to write home about it.”
“Stars!” said Mr. Wake.
“Which one would you rescue?” I asked as I looked around.
“None,” he answered shortly.
Then I let conversation die, which is what I almost always have to do when I can’t think of anything to say. I am not at all like my older sister Roberta, who is socially versed and can go right on talking, whether she has anything to talk about or not. Roberta is wonderfully clever, and talented and polished, and strangers can hardly believe we are sisters. But to get on, I didn’t mind the silence because I had so much to see.
The town that cuddled against the hills on the shore was getting closer and closer, and it was so interesting to see palm trees and such stuff that one associates with greenhouses, around the Statue of Columbus in a public square down in front of the town.
“Like it?” Mr. Wake asked of me, after quite a long interval of silence.
“The Italian sun makes the shadows black, doesn’t it?” I questioned, lazily, for the day and the new sights made me feel half sleepy, “and the houses so white that you squint when you look at them,” I went on. “Just the look of the sun makes you feel warm.”
Mr. Wake said I was right. “Personally,”
he said, “I think that that warm look makes a good many people think Italy a
warm country. It isn’t. Florence is penetrating during some of the winter
months. Hope you have heavy enough clothes.”
“Oh, yes,” I answered, “I have long underwear and everything,” and then I realized how Roberta would have felt about my confiding that, and grew silent. And after Mr. Wake said, “That’s good,” in a rather restrained way, he grew silent too.
Then suddenly we were bumping against a wharf, and the sailors were squawking as if the landing were the first one they had ever made, and ragged small boys with piercing brown eyes and dusky cheeks and black hair were crying, “Lady, postcard! Buy the postcard!” and beggars held out their hands and whined. And it seemed a pity to me that so gentle a climate and pretty a country had to welcome people that way.
However, before I was on land two or three minutes I had forgotten all about it and was completely absorbed by what Roberta would have termed “The country’s entire charm.”
There were occasional palm trees that rose
in piercing spikes between the roofs of dull red tile, and a blue sky so clear
that it seemed thousands of miles from the earth and as if the blue overlaid
silver; and little streets so narrow one felt sure the sun could never creep into
them. But I can’t do justice to these things, I can only tell, and roughly, of
what sank into my mind and stayed there. And the things that dented my memory
enough to stick in it, made their dents by sharp, new edges.
For instance: in Pennsylvania I never saw a little curly-haired, brown-skinned baby who looked as if she ought to have wings, sitting on a curb - without as much as a safety pin on her - and laughing at the bright pomegranate which she tossed in the air or rolled in the dirt-filled gutter.
And I had never seen half-clothed little boys turn handsprings in the street, and then sing out their begging song, which was, “Uno soldo, Signor! Uno soldo!” nor had I seen a town that lives in the street, and eats, quarrels, talks and sometimes even sleeps there.
We had to hurry through Genoa to the station, because we hadn’t any too much time in which to catch the train for Florence, but we went on foot and followed our facchino (which is Italian for porter) who had our bags piled high in a wheelbarrow, and I was glad we walked and that we were in a hurry, for we took the short cuts through the tiny back streets, and I think back streets are just like people’s kitchens. You learn more of the people after you have looked at the dishcloth, and found out whether they use a nice, hemmed square, or use any old piece of worn material that happens to be around, than you can from studying their parlors where everything is all spick and span and stuck up.
I said so to Mr. Wake as we hurried along, but he didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Our going was uphill, and it seemed to tire him; he puffed dreadfully. I decided when I knew him better that I would teach him the Billy Taft stationary run, and a few of Mr. Camp’s “Daily Dozen,” but I didn’t speak of it then, because I felt that the thought of further exercise might not be entirely welcome.
“Have to run for it,” he panted, as we gained the platform, and we did, and we got in the train none too soon. I love getting trains that way, but Mr. Wake didn’t seem to care for it so much, because after he had tossed the facchino some coins, and put our bags up on the shelf that is over the seats, he dropped down opposite me, took off his hat, fanned himself with it, and then wiped the perspiration from his brow.
“Getting old,” he said, but I shook my head, because my father is a doctor and I knew why he was out of breath.
“You’re just a little overweight,” I said, and I couldn’t help looking at his stomach which stuck out. He saw me do it and he laughed and I liked the little wrinkles that stood out boldly for that moment, around his eyes.
“You know,” he confided, “I’ve been trying to gain the courage to do something about it, but everyone - up to this moment - has discouraged me! I’d get my mouth set for long walks and short rations, and then someone would say, ‘Oh, stuff, you’re just right.’”
“Did they really?” I questioned, because I could hardly believe it, and again he laughed.
“Really, Jane!” he answered.
“Well,” I commented, “although you are
not really fat, you’re too fat for your height. And you puffed like the dickens
after that run, and it wasn’t anything.” And then I broke off with, “What’s
that?” for a horn of the prettiest, clear tone had tooted, and it made me
“Horn,” said Mr. Wake, “they do that in the stations before the trains pull out; haven’t any bells over here, you know. Now watch this start - smooth as glass; no jolts! Government over here seems to know how to run railroads.”
I smiled, because I thought that any government should be able to run the funny little trains that looked as if they ought to be running around a Christmas tree, and as if they would fall off at every curve, to lie, feet up, buzzing until someone started them on again.
Mr. Wake saw my smile, and I was glad he did, because what it led him to say helped me lots later.
“Think they’re funny?” he asked.
“They look as if they ought to be full of pine needles,” I answered. “You know how the needles begin to drop all over the Christmas tree yard about the second of January?”
“Of course they look like that,” he answered, “we got our patterns for toys, with many another thing, from this side of the pond. My child, a great many Americans come over here, and derive real benefit; they see things that are beautiful and rare, but their gratitude is of a strange variety, for they evidence it only with bragging.”
I felt flat. I said so.
“Pshaw, don’t!” Mr. Wake begged. “I didn’t mean you and I don’t mean to be a preachy old codger, but I do think one sees more if one appreciates and doesn’t depreciate. You know, as a matter of fact you wouldn’t go into a neighbor’s house and say, ‘My house is better than your house, my bathtub is shinier; my doorbell is louder, my front porch is wider,’ and lots of us - in various ways - do just that, for this is a neighbor’s house.”
I said a really humble “Thank you,” and Mr. Wake moved over to sit by me. He looked down and smiled in a very gentle way, and I began to love him.
“You are a very nice, sensible little girl,” he said; “how old are you!”
I told him.
“And why are you off here alone at eighteen?” he asked.
“I am going to Florence to study piano with Mr. Michele Paggi,” I responded.
“Well, well!” said Mr. Wake. And then he laughed. “I know him,” he said after the laugh. “And my, my, what a fire-eater he is! Well, you seem to like adventure. But whatever started you this way?”
“It really is a fairy story,” I said, “and it is so romantic that I sometimes can’t quite believe it, and I know I never shall be sure it isn’t all a dream.”
“That is nice,” Mr. Wake broke in, “and it’s hard to believe that I sit by a young lady who instead of asking questions will weave me a tale. Good fairies in it?”
“Yes,” I answered, “and a fairy godmother, who wears Paris hats, and always tilted just a little over one eye, and soft silk dresses, and gray furs that match her fluffy, wavy, light gray hair.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Wake, “then she is the
sort that I, myself, might fancy!”
“Oh, you would !” I asserted surely; and it seems very, very funny to recall that now!